Friday, August 16, 2019

Written on the Wind

Written on the Wind; drama, USA, 1956; D: Douglas Sirk, S: Rock Hudson, Robert Stack, Lauren Bacall, Dorothy Malone, Robert Keith, Grant Williams

New York. Kyle, an alcoholic millionaire whose father Jasper is a Texas oil tycoon, meets secretary Lucy in a bar, who was there with Mitch, Kyle's friend. Spontaneously, Kyle invites her to his private plane and flies her off to Miami. Even though she is reluctant at first, Lucy eventually marries Kyle. Jasper tries to persuade Mitch to marry Jasper's daughter, Marylee, but Mitch is secretly in love with Lucy. Kyle is devastated when the doctor tells him he might never have children due to low fertility. Marylee is arrested for massively picking up men on the street, which devastates Jasper who dies. When Lucy reveals she is pregnant, Kyle incorrectly assumes she cheated on him with Mitch. Kyle takes a gun to shoot Mitch, though in the struggle with Marylee shoots himself.

The director Douglas Sirk always walked on a thin line between a soap opera and an art film, which is why he is today met with mixed reaction, depending on the taste of the each viewer. One of his most famous films, "Written on the Wind", is a lush and unapologetically thoroughbred melodrama— sometimes even too much for its own good—combining themes of alcoholism, forbidden love triangle, jealousy and torment hidden behind a perfect facade of the rich, yet it has enough virtues to still seem relevant. Sirk wrote one of the best roles in the career of actor Robert Stack, who plays the alcoholic Kyle with a lot of emotion: he acts tough and extroverted, trying to impress Lucy by flying her to Miami in his private plane, but then reveals his fragile side and simply honestly asks her for a relationship in a genuine monologue later on: "I think seriously about all the things I used to laugh at. Like having a wife, and a home, kids." Stack was always a charismatic actor, and when given enough room, he could show how versatile he is. Surprisingly, the main protagonist Mitch (Rock Hudson) fares much less, since his role in paler in comparison. He is secretly in love with Lucy, yet the movie is never as inspired in his presence as it is during Kyle's screen time. Dorothy Malone plays an interesting character, Kyle's nymphomaniac sister Marylee: one guy who met her on the street is brought to Jasper and admits that "nobody picks her up, it's always the other way around". However, even her part is not that integral to the mail love triangle involving Kyle, Lucy and Mitch, and she thus sometimes feels like a "fifth wheel". The film loses a part of its sophistication and subtlety later on, revealing too much of the banal melodrama, yet still serves as an subversive commentary on the society which was not that perfect as it always seemed.

Grade:++

Thursday, August 15, 2019

The Hitcher

The Hitcher; thriller road movie, USA, 1986; D: Robert Harmon, S: C. Thomas Howell, Rutger Hauer, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Jeffrey DeMunn

During one night of his long car trip, Jim Halsey picks up a hitcher along the road, John Ryder. But Ryder turns out to be a psychopathic serial killer, and Halsey barely manages to throw him out of his car. However, along his trip, Halsey keeps encountering Ryder, and spots a family massacred in their car. Halsey stops at a diner, makes friends with the waitress Nash and calls the police. However, the police arrest Halsey, since Ryder framed him for the murders. When Halsey wakes up in the jail, the notices that everyone in the entire police station was killed by Ryder. Halsey flees and teams up with Nash. They stop at a motel, but Ryder finds them and kills Nash by pulling her in two parts with a running truck. Ryder is arrested, but flees. Halsey finds and shoots him.

There seems to have been a discord in "The Hitcher" between what the screenwriter Eric Red intended to make and what common sense should have incited him to actually make. Red had a good basic idea about a hitcher who persecutes a young driver, imbibing it with some 'Hitchcockian' moments of helplessness: for instance, after picking him up in the car, the hitcher hits Halsey's right leg and thus also hits the gas pedal, in order for them to quickly pass one abandoned car on the road, until the hitcher later on admits he killed the driver in the said car. In another, Halsey spots the hitcher in the back seat of a family car, and thus wants to alert the family to kick the hitcher out of their vehicle, but to no avail. The aesthetic cinematography also helps at building up the mood. Unfortunately, instead of the entire film following this direction, it quickly sails into such illogical waters that it can make the viewers' dizzy. It namely introduces a subplot where the hero Halsey is framed for all of the murders, as he becomes an epic scapegoat, giving the hitcher practically supernatural powers. When Halsey calls the police, they actually arrest him—even though it makes no sense. It turns out that the hitcher stole Halsey's ID and placed it among the corpses, but that was never previously established in the film, not in a single frame.

Halsey later wakes up inside the jail, pushes the door—and finds out it is unlocked. As he walks inside the police station, he finds all the officers massacred. Several problems right there. How could it be that he didn't hear anything while sleeping in his jail cell? Was he drugged by the hitcher? Why did the back-up police show up right then when he woke up? Later on, upon spotting two police officers, Halsey threatens them with a gun and forces them to enter the police car and drive him inside. Would an innocent man react this way? And just as Halsey was about to give himself in, the hitcher shows up out of nowhere, in a van, and shoots the two police officers, thus framing Halsey even further. Not even "Tucker and Dale vs. Evil" had such an impossible timing at being at the wrong place at the wrong time. The hitcher shows up everywhere, anytime, to such an extent that this becomes an elision of common sense. Two or three such lucky entrances could have been tolerated, but to show up like this always at the right time and at the right spot, that is ridiculous. When Halsey and the girl, Nash, are in the motel, far away from the places of the events, the hitcher shows up in the middle of their room. How? If Red had any sense for realism, he would have either tried to explain this or write something else. Take for instance Carpenter's "The Ward": the serial killer inexplicably appears always near the heroine, until it is revealed he is just a split personality of the heroine herself. If it would have been revealed that the hitcher was just a split personality of Halsey who is suffering from Schizophrenia, this could have helped in amending these flaws. During its premiere, "The Hitcher" was attacked by the critics for all the wrong reasons. It is not that "The Hitcher" is too violent. It simply that it is too implausible.

Grade:+

Wednesday, August 14, 2019

The High Sun

Zvizdan; drama, Croatia / Serbia / Slovenia, 2015; D: Dalibor Matanić, S: Goran Marković, Tihana Lazović, Nives Ivanković, Dado Ćosić, Stipe Radoja, Trpimir Jurkić

Three stories set in the Dalmatian hinterland. 1 9 9 1: Croat Ivan is in love with Serb girl Jelena, but Slobodan Milosevic is supporting the creation of the pseudo-state Republic of Serbian Krajina in the area. As the war is imminent, Jelena is abducted by her brother, a paramilitary, and brought to their village in a car. Ivan wants to see Jelena, but her brother kills him... 2 0 0 1: Nataša and her mother, Serb refugees, are returning, and Croat handyman Ante is helping them assemble the abandoned house, but Nataša hates him because her brother was killed by the Croatian army. Passion prevails and they have sex, but Nataša does not show interest in him staying, so he leaves... 2 0 1 1: Luka visits the home of his ex-girlfriend, Marija, with whom he has a child, but whom he abandoned on the insistence of his family because she is a Serb. He has a chance to have sex with another girl at a party, but declines and returns to Marija's home. She exits the house, sits next to him and then gets back inside, but leaves the door open.

Similarly as Mančevski's "Before the Rain", director Dalibor Matanic assembled "The High Sun" as a triple anthology of stories which all have the similar theme of ethnic conflict, but decided to set them all in a Romeo & Juliet concept and have the two actors—Tihana Lazovic and Goran Markovic—each play three different couples in the three time periods of the film. Matanic crafts the three love stories as a Schrödinger's cat experiment, contemplating if the Croat-Serb love couple could have had a hypothetical chance of succeeding if it were not set in the middle of the Croatian War, but during another time era, and thus "resets" Lazovic's and Markovic' romance to square one in the next decade, and the decade after that. Matanic, usually known for grotesque ideas, is untypically serious and honest in this edition, trying to establish a "raw" meditation on tolerance, though his dialogues are too routine and schematic at times, lacking more inspiration. The first story, set during the war, takes too long until it gets going, but has a strong point in the sequence where Ivan is playing on his trumpet nonstop, trying to persuade the Serb paramilitary to let him pass a checkpoint to see his girlfriend. The second story is equally as good, revolving around Serb refugees trying to integrate back, and culminates in a very passionate moment: Nataša is lying on her back, with her feet going up and down on the wall, until she stands up, kisses Ante and has sex with him in the house. The third story is the weakest, as if it lacks that raison d'etre since it has no real threat or obstacle for the Croat-Serb couple, though one can argue that Matanic was contemplating that the couple was interrupted during the war, and then post-war era, but that they do not have any more (external) excuses for failing in the third story anymore, and that all is now left on them. Despite omissions, the film has more to it than the typical social issue bait.

Grade:++

Monday, August 12, 2019

Split Second

Split Second; science-fiction horror crime thriller, USA / UK, 1992; D: Tony Maylam, Ian Sharp, S: Rutger Hauer, Alastair Neil Duncan, Kim Cattrall, Alun Armstrong, Pete Postlethwaite, Michael J. Pollard

London in the future is semi-flooded due to global warming. Cynical police Detective Harley Stone is searching for a bizarre serial killer who rips the hearts of his victims. Harley is annoyed that he is assigned to a new partner, Durkin. One day, someone delivers suitcase with a ripped hearts inside at the police precinct. Harley had an affair with Michelle, the girlfriend of his ex-partner Foster, who was also liquidated by the serial killer, but Harley broke up with Michelle. Harley and Durkin find the serial killer in an underground subway, and find out it is a demon. Harley rips the demon's heart out and shoots it.

A strangely underrated flick, this independent syncretism of "Sam Spade meets the Predator" works thanks to a good futuristic mood established thanks to a few aesthetically photographed images, fast pace and an actually interesting protagonist, the cynical Detective Harley, played by the excellent Rutger Hauer. Harley in "Split Second" acts almost as if he is in his own reality—upon trying to enter a night bar, a dog barks at him, but Harley just holds his badge in front of the canine and says: "Police, dickhead!" His new police partner, who is annoyingly "by-the-book", Durkin, compulsively cleans the lights on their police car, but Harley then just sticks his bubble gum on the glass. In another amusing moment, the police officers are speculating at who the mysterious cannibalistic serial killer might be, and Harley adds: "The only thing we know for sure is that he is not a vegetarian!" These auto-ironic moments give "Split Second" charm and wit, yet it still has flaws. For instance, why is the film set in the future? Why not in the present? The global flooding subplot leads nowhere. The viewers probably assumed that the demon serial killer might be connected to some sort of ecological forces taking revenge on humankind, yet that potential was unused. Harley's connection to the demon is also left unexplained, as is the creature's sole existence, which shows that the script was rewritten as they went along, and was left without a final point that connects all these threads. Despite its omissions and shortcoming, "Split Second" is still a much better film than its forgotten reputation hints at.

Grade:++

Sunday, August 11, 2019

The 300 Spartans

The 300 Spartans; adventure, USA, 1962; D: Rudolph Maté, S: Richard Egan, Diane Baker, Barry Coe, David Farrar, Ralph Richardson 

In 480 BC, king Xerxes pursues Persian irredentism and invades Greek lands with the aim of their annexation. Unfortunately, the Greek cities are disunited, so in Corinth politician Themistocles urges everyone to unite to stop the invasion. Spartan king Leonidas is chosen to lead the army against the Persians. When the council decides to wait until a religious festival is over, Leonidas refuses to waste time and sends his personal guard to the narrow pass at Thermopylae, to ambush the Persian army. Clinched between a mountain and the sea, the Persian army loses in every attempt at charging against the Spartans. When he is rejected by girl Ellas, shepherd Ephialtes goes to Xerxes' camp and gives him information about a secret route behind the mountain. Hearing the Persian army is about to attack from their rear, Leonidas orders other Greek soldiers to retreat. Leonidas and 300 Spartans stay behind and die trying to stop the Persian army.

The incredible 'David vs. Goliath' story of the 300 Spartans during the battle of Thermopylae was subsequently adapted into several media, and one of them was this film by Rudolph Mate, which is today actually better remembered for inspiring Frank Miller to write the famed comic-book "300". The director Mate crafted a solid, albeit somewhat standard and routine history film, yet the core of the story—integrity, honor, self-sacrifice, the underdog keeping his stand against a bigger enemy—still has enough pathos that it is able to engage the viewers even in the most dry execution. Richard Egan delivers a passionate, energetic performance as king Leonidas, heightening the drama: when the Persian envoy warns that king Xerxes has so many soldiers that, when they shoot, their arrows will "darken the Sun", Leonidas is quick to reply: "Then we will fight in the shade!" It takes about an hour until the clashes at Thermopylae start, and they have interesting moments. In one of them, the Persian cavalry charges, but the Spartans simply lie on the ground and cover themselves with shields. Once the horses have crossed over, the Spartans stand up again, and attack the Persian cavalry both from the front and the back. In another moment, they let the Persian elite guard arrive close, but one Spartan then puts hay on fire behind them, effectively blocking them from retreat and reinforcements. While "The 300 Spartans" could have used more ingenuity, they still have enough enjoyment value.

Grade:++

Bride of the Monster

Bride of the Monster; horror, USA, 1955; D: Edward D. Wood Jr., S: Bela Lugosi, Tor Johnson, Tony McCoy, Loretta King, Harvey B. Dunn, Paul Marco

Two people seek refuge from a thunderstorm at a mansion on Lake Marsh, but one is killed by a giant octopus from a lake, while the other is kidnapped by Lobo, a brute mute who works for a crazy scientist, Dr. Vornoff, who uses the guest for experimentation in the lab. Vornoff intends to create a new race of superhumans to take over the world. Since these mysterious disappearances of people keep piling up, reporter Janet decides to investigate herself, despite the objection of Lt. Craig. She also gets kidnapped by Lobo in the swamp and brought to the mansion. Vornoff wants to use her for the experiment, but Lobo rebels and releases Janet. In the ensuing chaos, the police shows up and chase Vornoff outside. Vornoff falls off a cliff and is killed by his octopus.

Out of many weird films by Edward D. Wood Jr., "Bride of the Monster" is arguably his most closest to being actually semi-competent: it owes that to a solid budget, building off the popular theme of a threat of misuse of science during the atomic age as well as Bela Lugosi's effective performance as the mad scientist Vornoff, whose enthusiasm may stem from identifying with the outsider character who was rejected by his country and thus has to live in exile, as identified in Burton's "Ed Wood". However, "Bride" is still only a lukewarm film with several flaws. At best, Wood manages to insert a few moments of humor, such as the scene where the police chief pours a glass of water in his office, only to give it to his parrot that drinks it. At worst, Wood is unable to conjure up real suspense due to too many naive, too serious or trashy elements: for instance, in the swamp, one character actually draws a gun and shoots continuously at an alligator approaching, instead of simply running away. The alligator and the octopus are isolated in their own world, since they are just stock footage from a different film, and thus one cannot quite buy into the idea that they are a threat. This is especially obvious in the octopus case: when it is not a real octopus swimming in the sea, a rubber puppet just lies in the puddle, while some guy just (unconvincingly) pretends its tentacles are encompassing him. Wrestler Tor Johnson is also solid as the mute Lobo. Overall, "Bride" is a guilty pleasure, if one simply does not expect too much from it.

Grade:+

Saturday, August 10, 2019

She's Funny That Way

She's Funny That Way; comedy, USA, 2014; D: Peter Bogdanovich, S: Owen Wilson, Imogen Poots, Kathryn Hahn, Will Forte, Rhys Ifans, Jennifer Aniston

Now famous actress Izzy gives an interview about how she ended up this way: she was a call girl, hired by theatre director Albertson who invited her for dinner. They landed in bed and he then persuaded her to quit the job and do what she wants. Izzy decided she wanted to be an actress and went to audition for a play about a call girl, directed precisely by Albertson. Izzy quitting her job upset a judge, who then went to see  psychotherapist Jane. Albertson did not want to cast Izzy, among others because he is married, but the playwright Joshua and actor Seth insisted she had to play the part. The play was a hit and Izzy became a famous actress.

After a 13 year pause, director Peter Bogdanovich returned with this film, yet his inspired touch from the 70s did not return with him, as well. "She's Funny That Way" is intended as a modern homage to classic screwball comedies of the 30s, except that it is strangely without energy, inspiration or wit of the latter. There are only two good jokes in the film: in the first, Izzy, the call girl who auditions for a play about a call girl, gives a smashing audition, and reads the text to her friend, about how she has "bad", "very bad" and "very, very bad news" (that she is a call girl; that she accidentally became pregnant; and that she is pregnant with the boyfriend of her best friend); the other is when Albertson and a woman argue while traveling in a taxi, but then the cab driver just suddenly stops the car and walks away. Sadly, there is little else to see in the story. It is hectic, tries a lot of crazy subplots, yet none of them manage to ignite or engage. Not even the random cameo by Quentin Tarantino at the end manages to lift it up a notch. Ironically, despite the fact that her role is so underwritten and scarce, the leading actress Imogene Poots is unexpectedly excellent, as if she manages to fake charm even during many scenes of empty walk, saving the film. An interesting footnote is Bogdanovich's shout to Lubitsch's "Cluny Brown" through the "Squirrels to the Nuts" line.

Grade:+

Monday, August 5, 2019

Funny Girl

Funny Girl; drama / comedy / romance / musical, USA, 1969; D: William Wyler, S: Barbra Streisand, Omar Sharif, Walter Pidgeon, Kay Medford, Anne Francis, Lee Allen, Mae Questel

New York, early 20th century. Fanny Brice (born 1891), a young Jewish woman, is trying to make it on the stage, but the producers do not like her. When she gets a chance to perform among other girls on roller skates in a play, the audience loves her humor. Fanny catches the attention of producer Ziegfeld and becomes a star in his plays, while she also falls in love with Nick Arnstein, a poker gambler, but he is often away. After a lot of back and forth, Fanny and Nick are married and get a baby. But while Fanny becomes a bigger star in show business, Nick gets into financial troubles and succumbs to a phony bond deal. His jail sentence marks the end of their relationship.

From today's perspective, it seems strange that the producers originally intended someone else to play the leading role in "Funny Girl", since the casting of Barbra Streisand is simply perfect. This biopic about Fanny Brice is an example where one character, the main protagonist, is the entire film, and Streisand takes this burden and rises to the occasion by performing a whole plethora of emotions, from sadness, tragedy, romance up to sheer comedy, since she is not afraid of being sometimes completely silly. The 10 musical sequences are redundant are could have been cut (the low point is when Omar Sharif sings in one of them); the overlong running time of 150 minutes sometimes drags whereas the second half turns more towards typical melodrama, demonstrating that the director William Wyler was not always inspired in this edition. Yet Streisand is such a highlight, being both genuinely fragile and winningly funny at the same time, that she gives "Funny Girl" a specific comic taste, sometimes with pure stylistic moves. Already the opening act gives her character sympathy: Fanny is rehearsing on stage with other girls, until the boss, Mr. Keeney, interrupts them and yells: "Hey, you with the skinny legs!" Upon hearing that, the oblivious Fanny looks around at the legs of other girls, hoping he didn't mean her, but he did: "Yes, you, with the bloomers!"

Fanny's first break on stage, where she played a part even though she could not roller skate, was a surprise hit with the audience, and this gives her some credit with Keeney, who adamantly refused to have her in his show. Later on stage, when they talk about him hiring her, he says he will "think about it", turns around — while Fanny makes an "angry claw" gesture with her hand behind his back. These kind of little details and bits that Streisand does give her character wit and energy. Fanny is such a fascinating character, not only because of her weird "comic outbursts" (one exchange between Nick, whom she secretly loves, and herself is insane: "I'm from Kentucky. I breed horses." - "Can't they do it themselves?!") but also because of her wild personality that was difficult to restrain for a performance. One sequence in particular has a great payoff: she refuses to sing the final song "His Love Makes Me Beautiful" on the stage, fearing it is corny and unnecessarily self-congratulatory for her not so typical physical looks, but Mr. Ziegfeld insists that she must do it. Fanny reluctantly agrees — but then performs the song wearing a giant pillow under her wedding dress, as if she is pregnant, turning this romantic song into a pure comedy that has the audience laughing until the roof, much to Ziegfeld's shock. As with many such biopics, this one is also a secret story of "rise and fall" of an individual, with sometimes rather underdeveloped plot points, yet it is a rare example of a star being far better and more appealing to look at than the sole film itself.

Grade:++

Sunday, August 4, 2019

The Ghostbusters of New Hampshire: Spilled Milk

The Ghostbusters of New Hampshire: Spilled Milk; fantasy comedy short, USA, 2010; D: Kevin J. James, S: Kevin J. James, Jonathan St. Pierre, Pat Harmon, Jim Boucher, Derek Dandurand, Jillian Lee Aldrich

A skeleton ghost scares a girl working in a store, but the New Hampshire Ghostbusters show up, fire the lasers from their proton packs - and blow up the gas station. As a disciplinary measure, a man shows up called Sketch who tries to drill the five members of the office into shape. However, Sketch later admits he only pretended to be their superior because of a bet. A new assignment brings the Ghostbusters to another store where they meet the skeleton ghost again. Even though another ghost shows up, the Ghostbusters manage to capture them.

One of the better fan films based on the "Ghostbusters", this amusing comedy managed to fill out the potentials of the concept, considering its 16 minute running time. A lot of kudos should be given to the charming script and performance by director and actor Kevin J. James. In one great joke, Sketch, an inspector, arrives at the office of the New Hampshire Ghostbusters after they blew up a gas station, and orders them to stand in a line. He then points at the chubby Derek and orders him: "Yeah, you, suck in the gut!" Derek just responds: "It's sucked, Sir." James steps in to try to reason with him, saying: "Let's be reasonable here. We all messed up last night! That much we can agree on", but is interrupted by one of the Ghostbusters, Jim, who protests: "I wasn't there!" These and similar lines manage to conjure up the tone and "comic frequency" of the original film. The laser proton packs are well done, though the visual effects of the skeleton ghost are kind of sketchy, consisting just out of a mask and drapes. The enthusiasm and energy of the "Spilled Milk", combined with even one nice sight gag (the "no gluten" logo rip-off), resulted in a film that is worthy of fitting the shoes of its ideal it was inspired by.

Grade:+++

Tuesday, July 30, 2019

The Last Movie

The Last Movie; experimental film, USA / Peru, 1971; D: Dennis Hopper, S: Dennis Hopper, Stella Garcia, Don Gordon, Julie Adams, Sylvia Miles, Peter Fonda, Samuel Fuller, Henry Jaglom, Michelle Phillips, Kris Kristofferson, Dean Stockwell, Russ Tamblyn, Tomas Milian

Kansas is a stunt man working on a western movie directed by Samuel Fuller, filmed somewhere in a village in Peru. A man dies during a stunt. After the end of filming, Kansas stays in Peru and starts a relationship with a local woman, Maria. He meets several other Americans in pubs, and once goes to a brothel. Maria becomes more demanding and wants expensive gifts. Kansas' friend has a goldmine in his possession, but the idea to dig for gold is abandoned since its mining is too remote and too expensive. The locals starts imitating the filming, forcing Kansas to star in their game, but they demand real violence. Kansas is wounded and falls on the ground, but then stands up again.

"The Last Movie" demonstrates how the experimental disjointed anti-narration, adopted in the 60s during the counterculture movement and introduced by Godard and others, seems terribly dated today. It wanted to go against the mainstream, to be "art in spite", to be modern, yet just feels confusing, chaotic and hard to follow. It also takes the viewers out of the film and disrupts their engagement: in one scene, for instance, Kansas falls wounded on the ground, but then just looks into the camera and stands up, breaking any illusion of potential suspense. Following his success with "Easy Rider", Dennis Hopper directed this peculiar film without a plot, which has some interesting moments: for instance, the title "A Dennis Hopper Film" appears only some 10 minutes into the film, while the title "The Last Movie" appears even 10 minutes later after that. In another amusing meta-film moment, Kansas and Maria are driving in a car, while all of a sudden a black screen appears for a second with the title saying "Scene missing". More of such refreshing interventions would have been welcomed, since a fair share of the film's point seems lost. There are great shot compositions in "The Last Movie", though they are, for the aforementioned reasons, "detached" from the storyline. Hopper's unusual worldview is presented through a few quirky ideas (Kansas and Maria are naked under the waterfall, having sex, while a priest accidentally walks kids for a sight-seeing tour of nature above, and thus rushes the kids to move on before they can look down), incorporating themes of an outsider lost in an isolated place, a one who can never find closure, whereas he also adds a sly critique of Hollywood in the best subplot, the one where locals were so fascinated by the film crew making a western film, that they themselves spontaneously start to imitate them, even using a fake "camera" and" microphone" made out of sticks (!), but want to use real violence for their filming game, which hints at the negative effects of violence shown on film.

Grade:++